Flyers Faithful presents the final installment of a seven-part series examining and celebrating the 1987 Stanley Cup Finals between the Philadelphia Flyers and Edmonton Oilers, arguably the best NHL championship pairing of the last 30 years.
The idea of the noble loser is a fairly recent concept. For ages lost in history as the winners got to write the story of their own glory and perpetuate it throughout successive generations, praising the vanquished was an unknown art.
Certainly in the whole history of Philadelphia sports, there were few instances of our losers giving it all and coming up that little bit short: perhaps the best example was the 1931 Athletics, who lost a seven-game World Series to the Gas House Gang-era Cardinals, and even then there was no bittersweet edge because Connie Mack’s White Elephants won the two years prior.
Think about it. All the years the Sixers came up short in a deciding game against the Celtics, it was a result of divine intervention or choking. The Phillies in 1964 represented the worst of both.
The 1986-87 Philadelphia Flyers were able to smash through that negativity and write a new chapter in history, remembered just as fondly and as well here and in other quarters of North America in defeat as the Edmonton Oilers are for winning.
That team rose very quickly in just three short years, enduring what the previous season’s video yearbook called “Triumph and Tragedy” to get just a taste of what it would have been like to be champions. Two of three trips to the title round ultimately came up short, this one a painful 3-1 setback in Game 7.
But still, the weight of playing 26 games in 53 days, taking 19 games just to reach the Finals while playing three rivals, the cost of giving it their all through injuries and deficits, and then having to burn up energy that might not have existed just to draw even with the best team in the NHL took its toll at the worst possible time.
As it was revealed in Jay Greenberg’s Full Spectrum, many players took the loss harder than any before or since. “I’ve never been shot with a bullet,” Mark Howe told the Daily News. “But it couldn’t hurt any more than this.”
A tearful Murray Craven added “We gave it everything we had, but that doesn’t make me feel any better. Not now anyway. We were just so close.”
Even the veteran defenseman Brad Marsh, who just completed his ninth pro season, couldn’t be totally circumspect when he admitted “maybe in a few days when we look back, maybe we’ll feel like we accomplished something. It was so close, we could taste it.”
Not even the presence of the following members of the Flyers’ Cup winners — most of whom were invited on Ed Snider’s dime, could push the psychological edge to the visitors: Bob Clarke, Bill Barber, Bernie Parent, Bill Clement, Bob Kelly, Rick MacLeish, Orest Kindrachuk, the Watson brothers, Dave Schultz, Ed Van Impe, Tom Bladon and Bill Flett.
And yet, for those of us who are now “of a certain age” this Flyers team holds a special place in our hearts, the same way a later quarter-generation does with the 1993 edition of the Phillies.
In spite of the depths of despair, praise for the Orange and Black’s effort did come from a likely place.
“This was the hardest Cup we ever won,” said Wayne Gretzky, who held it aloft in front of the home crowd for the third time in four years. “When we were leading 3-1 in this series, everybody was saying ‘when’s the parade? where’s the party?’ Then, all of a sudden, it’s 3-3. We had a chance to to go from maybe the best team ever to goats. Well, everybody rebounded and played the game of their lives.”
In both ’84 and ’85, Edmonton took advantage of the 2-3-2 format, winning once on the road before burying the Islanders and Flyers under the weight of three straight games at home on the best ice in the league. This Cup certainly taught the organization that simply relying on talent wasn’t enough. Neither was lacking the proper depth up front and on defense, or underestimating a familiar opponent at less than full capacity.
“I think this goes to prove that sometimes the hardest workers don’t always get the biggest rewards,” said backup Chico Resch to the Inquirer.
Given the level of hockey played by the Oilers when they needed it most, perhaps Chico had it backwards:
Note, from 1:14-18, how Gene Hart lets slip a little bit of premature gloating following the goal — the karma backwash was about to grow into a tidal wave that broke on the shore as Mark Messier’s game-tying tally.
And how about Mess raising his hands in triumph (3:03) for a shot that didn’t come close to the back of the net? Just because you think it’s so doesn’t mean anyone else was gonna be fooled…
“When we got that third goal, it was a great relief to every one of us, because that was when we knew we had it,” said Oilers defenseman Charlie Huddy. “People were calling us a flash in the pan, chokers, all kind of things and it was our responsibility to prove them wrong.”
That was a sentiment echoed by Flyers head coach Mike Keenan, who came up with his economical assessment of the one that got away: “We didn’t get a break. That’s because the other team didn’t give us any. They were clearly the better team tonight.”
Not only couldn’t Keenan come up with an on-ice plan to overcome the superior talent of Edmonton, his motivational techniques off the ice were also undermined. As Gretzky related to Rick Reilly in his 1990 autobiography:
“It turns out the Flyers had been taking the Cup into their locker room before games. I guess they were doing it for good luck and inspiration…but it wasn’t right. What were they doing with it? Etching their names into it? Practicing sipping out of it? We thought it was uncool, so our trainer Sparky stole it from them and hid it under one of the benches in his trainer’s room. Here was this historic game coming up and five minutes before faceoff, the league couldn’t find the Stanley Cup. He finally gave it back to them about three minutes before faceoff.”
As if there wasn’t enough torture to sit through the highlights, here’s the uncut final minute-and-a-half plus immediate post-game comments, again from Channel 57. It includes the majority of a farewell monologue given by Hart that I think ranks with the finest calls by a losing broadcaster in the history of the NHL, paternal scolding aside:
More than an hour after the final buzzer sounded, the post-game show wrapped up with this gem, dated as it may be with the strains of Starship’s #1 hit “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” but one that encapsulated the magical ride over the previous seven weeks:
After parsing each moment of this game from virtually every angle over the years, it seems to hold more what ifs than a Choose Your Own Adventure book.
What if the Flyers had scored on the back half of the two-man advantage? What if Brian Propp had shot a little harder from the left circle (2:32)? What if one of his teammates got there faster to poke the puck through the crease before Marty McSorley? What if Doug Crossman took off enough on his point-blank chance (3:22)? What if Ilkka Sinisalo realized he had more time to shoot on his chance all alone in the second period (4:20) or if he had turned his blade in a different direction to alter Derrick Smith’s shot (4:30)? What if the puck had time to settle while zooming through the neutral zone and didn’t hop over Ron Sutter’s stick early in the third period?
Ron Hextall made 40 saves. What if he hadn’t bitten on Kent Nilsson’s fake and played the pass that led to Edmonton’s first score (1:58)? What if he played Jari Kurri’s goal better by cutting down on the angle (5:03)? What if he’d stayed a little further back into his net when Glenn Anderson wound up from 45 feet (8:09)?
The Manitoba native’s rock-solid effort was the secondary storyline of Game 7, as his team’s shots dwindled suspiciously from 12 to six to just two in the third period.
“He was like God out there,” said Rick Tocchet. “I thought fate would give it to him. I really did.”
Resch, who suited up for his final NHL game that night, added some prophetic and poetic words for the rookie: “Ronnie is probably the most graceful goalie who has ever played the game. I’m keeping the tapes of his performances in the playoffs and if I ever get to a point where I can teach young goaltenders, I’m gonna show these tapes. This kid is going to be the best in the league for at least another 10 years.”
It wasn’t Fate, but league president John Ziegler, who eventually presented Hextall with the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. In that era, it was not awarded on the ice following the Cup presentation, Either way, it was a hollow victory.
“It’s a great honor but I’ll trade it for the Stanley Cup any day,” the presumptive postseason hero admitted. “This would have meant a lot more if we had won.”
At the time, he was the fourth player from a losing team to be named the playoffs’ top performer, and second Flyer after Reggie Leach in 1976. His final ledger was 15-11, 2.77 goals-against average, .908 save percentage and two shutouts.
If not him, then Grant Fuhr certainly stood as a worthy candidate, going 14-5 with a 2.40 GAA and .908 save percentage.
Hextall later won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender, but was strangely locked out of the trifecta, as Luc Robitaille of the Kings snared the Calder Trophy as best rookie.
For Gretzky, he finished the postseason with 34 points — his lowest total for any of the six playoffs (five with Edmonton, one with Los Angeles) during which he partook in a Final. His five goals was far and away the lowest in any of the six as well. His 29th and last helper was the one that made the difference.
The next morning, just after sunrise, thousands turned up and cheered at the old Overseas Terminal as the Air Canada charter landed. Hextall proudly lifted the Conn Smythe over his head, and multiple players, though tired from an overnight flight, greeted their faithful.
That one brief, shining moment faded into history quicker than anyone figured. The memories will last a lifetime, only to be eclipsed on the moment of victory in days yet unknown.
Thanks to everyone who read and watched over the last two weeks. Coming up in early September, a three-part series on the 1987 Canada Cup final series against the Soviet Union, in which several Flyers participated and played a notable part in winning.